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On Isaac

on December 7, 2009

As I said yesterday, the story of Isaac is not a pleasant one. I’ve always known that, but I think having a small boy yourself must bring it home to you in a new way. It’s easy to imagine how terrified Isaac must have been when his father started tying him up on the altar.

And from there, very easy to think that God must be pretty sadistic to be willing to put a small child through that sort of terror just to check whether his dad loves God more than anything.

Yet we are told that Jesus is the image of the invisible God. And it’s very hard to imagine Jesus doing such a thing. Didn’t he encourage children to come to him? Didn’t he show kindness and mercy to anyone fragile or hurting? Didn’t he make love the centre of his teaching?

This made me feel quite miserable for a while as I thought about it and considered that even if other local cultures practiced child sacrifice at the time, and this was to show that Jehovah is different to those gods, something doesn’t add up.

And then it occurred to me that the something is my assumptions. I’m assuming that God is happy with the way this has happened. That he’s fine with putting Isaac through something so horrible. (Just like we sometimes assume that he was fairly happy for Jesus to go ahead and be tortured). But the Bible doesn’t specify either way. I just assume that God doesn’t do things unless he’s happy with them – that nothing can compel God to do something he doesn’t want, and yet the Bible is full of examples that show otherwise. God didn’t want to kick Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden, yet their sin forced his hand, because he loved them too much to let them stay and live forever in sin. God didn’t want to exile the Israelites – after all he put them there in the first place – but their steadfast rejection of him made it necessary for their own good. Just like I don’t really want my son to spend his evening doing his homework instead of playing, but it has to be done and because I love him he has to be the one who does it.

So why assume that God was happy to tell Abraham to kill Isaac? We don’t know the context because we weren’t there. Perhaps this really was the only way to convince Abraham (and his descendants after him) that child sacrifice was not going to be accepted by this God. If we believe in a loving God, the God whose visible image is Jesus, then we have to believe that this was the only way possible and that God was not pleased to have to do it. No other explanation works.


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